You might not think it to listen to them, but few, if any, politicians like the political centre. It is defined by others and inhabited by voters whose loyalty to any particular party is weak. Much more fun to consort with true believers. This is as true of Britain’s Liberal Democrats as it is of anybody else. And yet the party’s fortunes depend on its appeal to centrist voters. Can the party pitch for the political centre, while developing a clear, principled core values? I think it can – but it won’t be easy.
Following the party’s calamitous General Election results in May (which followed five years of calamitous results in local, European, and Scottish and Welsh elections) there was much talk by its activists of abandoning the previous leadership’s obsession with the centre. The whole idea was rubbished, in contrast to the idea of building up a “core” vote. The party now commands about 8% of the UK national vote (the same as in May), which, it is claimed, is lamentably small for a core vote. What is needed is to add to this core by principled campaigning that may not appeal to centrist voters, but will attract voters more likely to stick with the party.
The party’s failure is compared to the relative success of Ukip (who took 13% of the vote) and the Greens (who took 5%) – though the fact that neither of these parties managed more than a single seat in parliament shows weakness rather than strength.
Who are these potential core voters? Blogger Mark Pack and former Cambridge MP David Howarth produced a well-researched paper on this. They suggest the party fishes in a pool of about 30% of people whose outlook is open and tolerant on such issues as immigration. They suggest that the party might attract 20% of the vote that way. These voters tend to be on the left rather than the right. All this sounds quite sensible, and it is, as far as it goes. But the problem is that the party still has to compete for these voters, especially with Labour, the Greens and the SNP. Winning and holding on to such voters is going to be no easy business, even if the party’s credibility hadn’t been shot through by its perceived record in coalition, and by its poor electoral showing.
And a real spanner has been thrown into the works by the Labour Party, with its election as leader of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour, too, is fed up with the centre ground and wants to build on its core vote. And their prospective core overlaps with the one marked out by the Lib Dems. Indeed many Lib Dem activists hanker after the days when the Labour Party, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, aimed for the political centre, leaving them a clear run at discontented left-wingers. The party tried to stand out in a series of “principled” campaigns, opposing the Iraq War and abolishing student tuition fees, for example. And votes came, with the party’s best general election result in 2005. Whether this really was a principled stand based on liberal values, or an unprincipled and opportunist pitch for discontented voters, is one the questions the party has to ask itself. There were clear elements of both. But either way, coalition with the Conservatives was about the worst thing the party could have done. (Though I suspect that coalition with Labour would have ended up little better, even if it had been feasible -but through a different dynamic).
But Labour have slammed the door on a repeat of that idea. They are in a much stronger position to fish amongst these voters; they have more resources and, frankly, more credibility. But as that door slams shut, another opens. In the political centre, which the Conservatives are likely to abandon too, given that Labour is not competing for votes there. But capitalising on that opportunity is far from straightforward.
In fact the party will find it hard to bid for the political centre on many issues: Europe, immigration and refugees, reducing carbon emissions, and redistribution through the tax and benefits system, for example. These run close to what most of the party feels is its inner essence. And after all the “core vote” strategy is not dead – it is just that the pool of potential supporters has narrowed. The party needs to expand its core, and then pitch for centrist floating voters at election time.
So where should the party follow a distinctly centre line compared to Labour and the Conservatives? I think the answer is economic policy, public services and political reform.
On economics the party needs to stand for fiscal prudence, and step aside from all the left-wing rage over “austerity”. There’s a bad reason and a good reason for that. The bad reason is that it has public credibility, and fits in the slipstream of right-wing propaganda. This is bad because this credibility has been earned for largely the wrong reasons, leaning heavily on the “fallacy of composition” – that you run a state economy and a household economy in much the same way. The good reason is that demographics, the effects of technology change and changes to the world economy are all reducing the potential size of the money economy, and so the tax base. We have to find a better way to achieve the society we want than splurging public money everywhere. But this doesn’t mean we have to sign up to the Conservatives’ economic liberalism and reduce the size of the state in proportion to the economy as a whole.
Which leads to public services. The watchword has to be getting better value for money through a programme of reform. This may be resisted by workers and managers within the services. It will be resisted by Labour, now the the unions seem to be in control. But the party should not accept slash-and-burn narrowly focused and outsourcing . What we need is integration of public services so that issues that are related – mental health, crime, housing, work, for example – are handled in a coordinated way around the needs of actual people. Which means, in practice being led by a locally empowered case-workers with the authority to make things happen in all the various agencies. The party’s best brains need to be on this – and establishing local experiments where the party is able to. For what it is worth, this happens to be close to the party’s officially adopted policy.
And thirdly there is political reform. Left and right may talk about reforming the system, but they only want limited changes that would in practice consolidate power for themselves. The party needs to push for more local devolution, proportional representation (with the top priority being local elections), and a federal settlement for the United Kingdom that would , amongst other things, replace the House of Lords. All this would allow a more democratic, pluralistic and effective polity.
When describing these policies, something becomes clear. They are centrist in that they contrast with the stands of right and left. But they are also radical and based solidly on liberal principles. They should both appeal to core voters and provide a platform for appealing to less liberal centrist voters.
But it will be hard. The temptation will be for the party to jump on every leftist bandwagon going, and ending up with nothing coherent.To indulge the politics of protest, and not campaign for real change. Labour have stolen the march on that, and will do it better. Instead the party needs to be about achieving results for real people, not posturing in order to bring in a few extra votes for a short period of time (read David Boyle for more on this idea).
And on that basis the party must defend its record in coalition. It is often said what a mistake it was for Labour not to defend its economic record vigorously at the last election – something the left and Blairite wings of the party agree on. Likewise the Lib Dems can’t ignore such an important part of its recent history as the coalition. The question of future coalitions, and even electoral pacts, will need to be discussed in due course. But the party must be clearer about who it is and what it stands for first. It’s not about power, but what the party wants to achieve.
The party has its main annual conference in Bournemouth starting at the weekend. I am going, and I will be most interested to see how the party is shaping up to the massive challenge that confronts it. My sense so far from talking to the some of the many new, and younger, people that have been drawn to the party in the last year, is that they are more interesting in the constructive, radical centre than they are in the protest politics of the left. I hope that’s true of the wider party.